The world is not the same without Elie Wiesel. He did more than write. He did more than teach. He symbolized survival and hope.
I met him at age 13 when my dad and I drove from Milwaukee to Chicago to see him speak. Afterward we went up to talk, and my dad embarrassed me by telling Wiesel I wanted to become a rabbi.
He said “We need you,” and then he grabbed my hand and offered a blessing. I don’t remember what he said, but I remember the feeling of holiness he created. He felt like a link to the past and a push into the future.
So many eloquent tributes have been written over the last two days. They come from people who knew him far better than I did.
What I hope to convey to Christians and Jews is a touch of his literary genius. His writings influenced millions of people. He not only conveyed the horror of the Holocaust. He also revealed part of the beauty and wisdom of the Jewish tradition.
Here are a few of his greatest books. You will not regret reading any of them.
- Night: This seminal book captures the absolute horror—physical, psychological and spiritual—of the Holocaust. It does so in stark unadorned language. Publishers initially hesitated in promoting this book because it is so bleak. It reveals the evil of which we are capable, and it is a witness and a prod for us to do everything we can to never forget.
- Five Biblical Portraits: Wiesel grew up in a home infused with Jewish learning. He knew the Bible intimately, and he tells the stories of biblical figures with a language and emotion rooted in the traditional Jewish piety. This book exposes a side of the Bible rarely captured in sermons or scholarship.
- Trial of God: Wiesel maintained a complex theology. He doubted and believed. This book tells of a group of prisoners in the Auschwitz death camp putting God on trail for crimes against humanity. They convict God. Then they proceed to say their evening prayers.
- All Rivers Run To the Sea: Wiesel tells the story of his childhood through his experience of the death camps. The title of this memoir is taken from the first chapter of the Book of Ecclesiastes. Few books are more interesting and revealing than autobiographies of extraordinary people who write with eloquence and insight. This book is all of that and more.
- The Town Beyond the Wall: This novel tells of a Jewish man who returns to his native Hungary to find out why his neighbors gave him up to the Nazis. The man ends up getting thrown in prison. Wiesel explores how societies both change and remain the same, and what our responsibility is to the future.
Thankfully, each of these books will keep Elie Wiesel’s memory alive. As we say in Jewish tradition, Zecher Tzadik L’vracha, “May the memory of the righteous endure among us as an everlasting blessing.”